Science communication online
Perhaps you’ve marched for science, talked to your congressional representatives, or explained the science behind global warming/GMOs/vaccines with your friends and family but are still looking for other outlets to share your scientific knowledge and passion to a broader audience. Through social media platforms online, it is now easier for scientists to embark in science communication and outreach with the general public.
There are numerous ways to share scientific ideas and results with a wider scientific audience than at a conference presentation or a wider lay audience than your family and friends. Starting a blog is a great opportunity to become an active science communicator: long-form blog writing is a way to share information, teach concepts to a new audience, and engage with interested readers who are curious about your topic.
Starting a science blog is not a trivial task, nor is it easy to maintain a website or keep up with a regular posting schedule. Keeping up with a blog takes time, energy, patience, and good planning. That being said, the potential for rewards for both you and your readers can be worth the effort.
This week we hosted the #SciBlogHubChat and discussed the challenges and strategies for active science bloggers. Today’s post is a summary of how you can start and keep an active science blog and some considerations for maintaining your creative energies. We are also only a few weeks away from celebrating the two-year anniversary of Science with Style. It has been a fun yet challenging two years and we hope to share some of the things we learned along the way!
Step 1: Lay out your blogging goals
Our online presence is becoming more of a part of our lives, and our careers, than ever before. Because employers and collaborators will look at your online presence as a portfolio alongside your CV/resume, it’s important to ensure that what you say online reflects who you are and what your goals are. It’s not enough to set up a blog and let it sit there empty until you write a 5000+ word post ranting about a bad day in the lab. You have to figure out what you want to achieve with your blog and what work it will take to achieve your goals on a weekly or monthly basis.
Start by answering the following simple questions:
- Who is your audience?
- How will you share your material with your audience?
- What ways will you promote your website (Twitter, Facebook, posting on other blogs, etc)
- How often will you provide new material for your audience?
- How much time do you have to devote to writing posts (be sure to include time spent brainstorming ideas, reading relevant papers/articles, and conducting interviews)?
Answering these questions will help you determine the style of your website, if you link your blog to a social media platform like twitter, what sort of language you use in your posts, and how long your posts will be.
For Science with Style, I write posts for early career researchers who come from a wide variety of technical backgrounds; for that reason, my posts focus on professional development and science communication. For my new project, the ToxCity Tribune, I am looking to reach people who are interested in toxicology and environmental science news. I write these posts in a way that is more general in terms of discussing scientific concept and I focus less on themes that are more relevant for early career researchers such as career development.
Science with Style posts tend to be around 1500 words long and the ToxCity Tribune posts are slightly shorter (1000 words). Part of this is the time required to read articles and write complex topics more concisely for ToxCity Tribune whereas for Science with Style I have time to talk more about a topic since there is less background research needed.
Step 2: Set up a clean and simple online presence
There are many hosting websites you can use to set up your science blog. A few examples include WordPress, Weebly, Blogger, and Wix. If you are more social media savvy than I am, you can also explore the applicability of websites like Tumblr and Reddit for your writing activities. Stick with a template that allows you to adopt a simple, clean style for your website; you don’t need anything flashy or complicated that will drown out your message.
Finding the best design for your message will take time and will most likely involve you trying out a few different approaches. Be open to changing things around if the template is not working. The good news with websites such as weebly is that if you change your layout, you won’t lose any of your content.
If you are using a free hosting platform, you won’t have full control over your URL; this service only comes when you pay extra for an expanded hosting package. When you are just starting your blog you can try out a couple of different websites before you commit to a paid plan and custom URL (if having one is important for you). I pay around $60 USD per year for both the URL and the upgraded Weebly package. I don’t make any of that money back on ads or revenue, but I consider $5 a month a low enough cost to feel comfortable with paying for the upgrade.
If you have HTML skills then you can create or customize your own website and only pay the URL and hosting fees. This means an investment in time instead of money (unless you pay someone to do the customization). But don’t feel pressure to become a computer programming or design expert—keep it simple, clean, and invest the time and/or money into the parts that are the most rewarding to you.
You might also want to develop a social media presence to go along with your blog. This can either be connected to your personal account or to a separate, blog-specific account. This will depend on your blogging goals, what type of posts you want to write (more personal or more detached from your own work/experience in science), and what audience you want to reach. If you decide to separate the personal from the professional, you can establish separate accounts to help you follow and find relevant materials for your blog and can keep your personal account for fun or your personal perspectives.
I use @SciwithStyle and @ToxCityTribune to follow accounts that are relevant for each blog. For Science with Style, I follow academic professional development organizations, science communicators, and outreach-related accounts. For ToxCity Tribune, I follow toxicology and environmental science research groups, toxicology papers, science news websites, and government institutions.
Having a social media account also requires you to have a social media plan in place: how often will you post on the account, how will you engage with others online, how will you share and promote your materials, whose materials will you share in return, and who you will follow. Social media can also be a distraction from work or from your writing, so be sure to limit your time to 5-10 minute increments. Distractions aside, I’ve found Twitter to be a great source of inspiration, news, and connections to interesting people I never would have met were it not for a curated account or a hashtag.
Step 3: Get to writing!
Long story short: writing is difficult and it takes time! For a single blog post, I usually spend ~30 minutes planning (developing the idea and preparing an outline), 1-2 hours writing the draft, and another hour editing the post, finding a relevant image, and posting the material.
Keep in mind the amount of time that writing a single blog post will take and plan your schedule accordingly. I dedicate a set time each week to drafting each post, generally with outlines and prep work on Monday night and draft writing on Tuesday, to keep me on schedule.
Part of getting into the writing ‘zone’ involves figuring out your own process and establishing a rhythm. I like starting with an outline and some notes the day before I write the post because it helps take the pressure off of the day that I need to write the post in full. I’ve met people who prefer to do all of their writing in a single sitting. Try a few approaches to see what works best for you and then stick to a routine to help maintain your pace.
Step 4: Hone your writing skills
Even the best writers need good editors. Find a reliable friend, colleague, or family member who is willing to read and edit your posts. A good editor will not only read your post and find any grammatical mistakes, they will also take the time to think of more impactful ways to share your message. This is someone who helps you improve any awkward or unclear phrases and a person who provides feedback on a draft that you can immediately use and incorporate into the final version. Comments like “This is great!” or “I don’t like the conclusion” are not that helpful; comments such as “I like the short introduction” or “You can improve the conclusion by adding another citation” are things that can improve your writing. Ideally, you should also be confident in your editor so that you don’t have to spend time editing his/her edits.
Step 5: Get inspired!
Another challenge with maintaining a blog is finding inspiration for new posts. Inspiration will often come from unexpected places, like a dinnertime conversation with a friend or a flash of insight on your commute from work. Take notes of your ideas as they come…I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very easy to forget even the greatest ideas!
To get inspired, stay on top of what other material is out there by following active bloggers and writers as well as recent science news. There is a lot of material online, but remember that your perspective will always be unique, and there is more than one way to look at a story. You might have a unique perspective as an early career researcher or from working on a topic at a level that most people might not recognize (like an anthropologist studying climate change).
When thinking about stories that might be interesting for others, think about what you like to read about, either for your blog, your work, or just your personal interest: What topics do you care about? What inspires or interests you? What worries or concerns do you have related to science and technology? Chances are if it is something that fundamentally interests you, someone else would also love to read about it.
Not feeling inspired? It happens to all of us! We all run into the occasional roadblock when it comes to writing. Check out our previous post on how to free yourself from writer’s block. When you are in a creative mood, make a list of post ideas and potential blog topics and keep these handy for when you get to a day when inspiration fails to strike.
A science blogger’s life
Starting (and, equally important, maintaining) a science blog can be a rewarding activity if you are ready to commit to the work required to make it happen. Even if you don’t feel that you are a ‘good’ writer, blogging can help you improve your written communication skills by helping you find your writing rhythm and keeping you on track with a post schedule. It’s also an opportunity to receive feedback from colleagues and readers and to share your perspectives with a new audience online.
Once you’ve become an established blogger, you can also more broadly share your work using common hashtags, joining twitter conversations, and guest blogging. Whatever your professional interest or skill level may be, science blogging is a great place for aspiring science communicators who are enthusiastic to share the world of science with a new audience.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s happy to see that 2016 is finally coming to a close. In a year of brutal rhetoric and political firestorms, it’s a good time of year to be able to hang up our hats, head home to see family and friends, and avoid talking about politics, science, and everything in between. At the same time, 2017 year is a time for New Year’s resolutions and a chance to make things better than they were the year before. In this last post in our science writing and journalism series, we’d like to encourage our readers to add yet another goal to their resolution check-list: to act as a science communicator and citizen science journalist!
2016 experienced how powerful the role social media holds in shaping and sharing people’s opinions. In particular, there are frequent discussions on the role of social media in the democratic events of 2016, namely Brexit and the US presidential election, but also now the Philippines presidential election. These events demonstrated the power of social media to disseminate ‘news’, whether or not that news was true.
At the same time, blogs, tweets, and personal websites are powerful tools that can enable all of us to become our own type of journalist. Scientists can benefit from understanding journalism and can use the tools and tricks of this trade to create their own impactful yet accurate articles about science and news. Journalism skills include knowing where you find information as well as how you report it. As a scientist you’ll already have a lot of experience in finding out things, be it from experiments or literature searches, but how can we better report the facts into a truth-telling story?
1. Your first sentence
A good news article starts with a strong introductory sentence. In the online Coursera MOOC (link) we were given an exercise on writing the introductory sentence, which in journalism is known as the lead. The lead gives all of the important details of the story in a clear and non-judgmental manner (with no interpretations on the content that are being presented). Your goal in this first sentence should be to answer as many of the key questions of journalism (who, what, why, where, when, and how) in a 25-30 word easy-to-read sentence. Here’s a few examples from the CNN and BBC front pages today (5 Dec):
“Ben Carson will be nominated as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Trump transition team announced Monday.” 23 words
“Outgoing Italian PM Matteo Renzi has met the country's president following a heavy defeat in a constitutional referendum on Sunday.” 20 words
The very first sentence keeps things simple and uses the next paragraph to fill in the background information tied to the lead. It may feel strange to write a sentence this way, but picture yourself reading an article about something you’ve clicked on during your lunch break. How quickly do you decide if something is interesting to read or not? When you’re in a rush and there’s more and more articles for you read, in general you make that decision rather quickly.
2. The inverted pyramid
An inverted pyramid is the analogy used to describe the organization of the information in a news article. You start with the most news-worthy facts and fill in details and other, less-relevant or less-exciting facts later on. If your goal is to convey new information, following this structure provides your audience with the most important information up-front. As with the first sentence, you might decide while reading an article that it’s not of interest or it’s too boring quite early on, so using a structure where the most important and interesting information comes first can help keep someone’s attention for longer. As you write, introduce new facts in the order that your reader would want to know them. A good question to start with is “What does this latest research finding/piece of information mean for them?”
When writing your story, be sure to answer the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How of the story you’re trying to tell. Before you start writing your article, write down the answers to the 5 W’s and the 1 H. This will help you structure both your first introductory sentence as well as the outline of the write-up. Does a particular aspect of the story resonate more strongly, such as a connection to their health or their daily decision-making? Be thematic when necessary and remember that your audience will have different interests and connections based on who they are.
Answering why will always be the most difficult. So, if you have an answer, be sure to put it front and center. This is also a great strategy for writing a grant application, where your audience (the reviewers) will want to know precisely who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it (and why it matters), where it will have an impact, when it will be finished, and how it will all come together into a cohesive and successful project. So even if news articles or science writing isn’t your thing, the inverted pyramid strategy can still come in handy!
3. KISS (keep it simple, scientists)
Journalistic writing aims to be simple, clear, specific, and engaging—and this is much harder to write than it is to read. Especially when your experience so far has primarily focused on writing like a scientist, where the audience is primarily other researchers with science degrees, translating complex ideas into something that’s readable at a 4th grade level is a challenge. Some basic rules include:
- use everyday words instead of complex ones (‘improve’ instead of ‘ameliorate’)
- use verbs and the active voice (like ‘analyze’ and ‘selected’) instead of abstract statements (‘has been’ or ‘was chosen’)
Thankfully there are a lot of online tools for checking the readability of your work, including the Hemingway App as well as an integrated review system within Wordpress. It will take you more than a few iterations to simplify your writing, but you can rely on these tools or other peer reviews from friends who don’t have a scientific background to give you feedback on the readability of your work. Improving your writing comes with practice and in learning first-hand how you can re-structure and re-word your sentences to make your ideas more active.
4. Be prepared
As we’ve said many times before, background reading and having a thorough understanding about something is crucial before you can write about it. So read, read, and then read some more before you even think about what you’ll say.
If your article will include an interview or requesting a statement from another person, be prepared before you meet with them by reading their work and making a plan of what must be answered during your time with them. Be sure to get some basic information from them (their role in the study/in the field, what their background is) and to get as many answers to the Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How as you can. Write out topic headings rather than full questions, and put them at ease by adopting similar body language and style in order to minimize any communication barriers. My favorite interview advice from Coursera was to ask stupid questions and to not be afraid to sound like you don’t know something. The measure of success in an interview isn’t how you feel but what material you get out of it. In other words: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
When interviewing others, especially scientists whose work might not be published yet, be clear at the beginning of your meeting at what level of attribution you’ll be using. If the discussion is on the record then you’ll need to attribute any statements and facts to the person and paper (if available). If things are on background, you won’t be able to say from whom you got the statement/information from, and anything off the record cannot be published or attributed. You’ll likely not encounter a situation where statements made will be off the record, but if a fellow scientist shares something with you that they don’t want to be made public, it’s up to you to respect their privacy. This is also a good concept to know about for anyone still working as an early career researcher—at some point you might be interviewed by a journalist, and talking about something not yet published can end you up in a difficult situation if the findings come out in a newspaper before a journal article.
Even if you don’t aspire to be a prize-winning, world-renowned journalist, you can still use this skillset to enhance the impact of your science writing. Whether it’s a manuscript for your peers or a written post about your research for an institute outreach activity, becoming a citizen science journalist can help bridge the gap between the news we read and the science we do on a daily basis. In this day and age of blogging, social media, and hourly news updates, it’s possible for any of us to make an impact with our words—impact that we can use to make 2017 a better year than the one before.
As a scientist and a soon-to-be citizen journalist, each story you craft has to be more than a series of facts but also an engaging and accurate depiction of the truth. Your source of information should always include referenced facts and figures, but also including first-person accounts from scientists you meet at conferences, seminars, or at a local pub can add depth to your writing. Perspectives and insights gained from interviews are great for empowering you to tell your story and can help drive important research questions. And just like the journalist whose task it is to filter out someone’s opinion from a bona fide fact, so too must scientists learn how to talk to people in order to learn the facts and perspectives that are relevant for telling a science story.
I had the opportunity to interview four researchers from our institute this summer and was able to see the power of interviewing with and listening to researchers from fields other than my own. Talking to someone in an interview format is a terrifying prospect, but by approaching the conversation with an open and curious mind, I found that I learned more from the experience than the simple facts and figures I took home with me. In a post-truth world, the connections we make with people as we search for truth and understanding will continue to become as important as the data and the figures that we make to tell our story.
But let’s start out simple: What is an interview? Simply put, an interview is an opportunity to ask specific questions and receive answers, with the primary purpose being to get quotes, facts, insights, and to build a relationship with your interviewee. An interview is more formal than a casual conversation over coffee, just like how a job interview is more formalized than talking to someone at a conference about a job at their company. An interviewee is put on the spot to answer specific questions, and an interviewer is tasked with asking good questions, listening to responses, and collecting everything for analysis at a later date. It’s an intense process on both sides, and one that involves more than a simple series of questions and answers.
In the world of journalism, there are two types of interview styles. In a collaborative interview, your subject is willing to or very keen on telling a story. Your aim and theirs are the same: you both want to convey facts to the public and share their story for a specific purpose, such as making an audience more aware of a topic or sharing a new research finding. This is the most common type of interview you’ll be doing as a science communicator/citizen science journalist. Alternatively, an adversarial interview is when the interviewee is held to account on a topic while the subject is challenged to provide answers on something he or she might not want to answer. Perhaps if you stray into a controversial topic about someone’s research you might engage in this type of interviewing style, but for the most part working with other scientists there’s no need to put them in the hot seat.
There are also different types of questions you can ask at an interview. Open questions such as How does PCR work? or Why is your research important? are questions that put the power in the hands of the subject. These types of questions allow you to find out what the subject knows in a more open manner, especially related to things you don’t have any prior knowledge about. The disadvantage here is that it can allow your subject to ramble on about something beyond relevancy—leaving you to either intervene or to let them carry on while taking time from other questions.
Closed questions such as Did the new experiment work? or Were the findings statistically significant? can be answered very simply with a yes/no/short explanation, but the subject can also expand upon the answer if they feel like adding more. Closed questions give the interviewer the control and can enable you to focus on a topic and bring a discussion to a point, but it also limits what you hear—with these types of questions, you can’t find additional answers beyond what you’re asking or what you know about already.
No questions are an interesting approach I learned about in the citizen journalism Coursera course. It’s quite literally a question that’s actually a statement (I really don’t see the importance of that), and sometimes it’s not anything more than a Really?, Honestly?, or even just a period of silence from you. It can open up the subject for a reply, as people tend to want to fill the silence. It’s a way to get people to say things without a specific question preceding it. If you’re doing a collaborative interview you likely won’t need these types of approaches, but if you do run into someone that’s not providing a lot of feedback, this is one way to go about getting answers.
Interviewing as a journalist also means adhering to a code of ethics regarding consent and deception. Rules will vary internationally but in general they require you to identify yourself and your employer before an interview, to use fair and honest ways of obtaining materials for a story, and to never exploit a person’s vulnerability. Scientists working on science writing and communication activities should also strive to adhere to similar types of guidelines: be upfront about who you are and the purpose of your work, the intended output/audience, and be cautious when trying to sell a “breaking story” on research that hasn’t been published yet.
The formal definition of deception is to make people believe what we ourselves do not. This involves nefarious ways of developing empathy with a subject that are done under a false pretense or changing the story once new facts come in without your subject being on board. The rules on deception and entrapment are complicated for journalism, but as with the rule above: be clear about what you’re doing and be honest about what your goals are.
Prior consent means obtaining permission from a subject to interview them, including any media materials (like photos or videos) that you’ll collect for your story. Your University or institute might already have rules in place for using a picture or a video of someone on a blog or a news story that you’ll post on a Twitter account, so be sure to check with your publications office or a press officer before publishing any media online for your organization. This is especially true if you’re working with minors—get in contact with the appropriate press contacts before including any quotes or photographs of younger students, and do your homework before the event so you can collect any required permission from parents as needed.
Setting up an interview might seem too formal or unnecessary, but whether you’re a writer, a scientist, or just want to learn something from someone, an interview can be a great opportunity to gain information beyond the scope of a normal conversation. People do answer questions differently when in an interview setting, just as those of you who have applied for a job know that being put on the spot is different than talking about your life’s goals over a cup of coffee. Envision the interview with purpose, as a way to get information, insights, and also to build a relationship with another person. As we previously discussed in our networking post, building a professional relationship is crucial for progressing in your career. Interviews, and the information you’ll gain from them, can help you get there and can help you tell a story using more than just facts and figures.
The term “post-truth” was recently named Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. This was in part thanks to the political movements fueled by strong emotions and sentiments, most notably in the UK and the US, but also possibly across Europe as many countries will face their own upcoming elections early in 2017. “Post-truth” isn’t a new concept, as authors and journalists in 2004 highlighted the actions of the Bush administration in a post-9/11 America. Just as last week we started our series with an overview of journalism, this week we’ll start by answering a simple question, given the fiery discussions surrounding the word truth: What is truth, anyways?
In journalism, truth is defined as the best obtainable version of the facts available at a given time, where facts must be consistent with the material available at that point in time. True statements should be based on facts and substantive claims, with verification and double-checking of facts a crucial step of telling any story. As the news-writing adage goes (and still stuck in my head from high school journalism class almost fifteen years ago now), “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” But from this perspective, truth is also changeable. Truth is based on the knowledge you have at the time, and truth can change when new material comes to light.
Scientists have a similar means of coming to the truth. We use the scientific method to conduct experiments and generate data that tells us if our idea of how the world works could be possible or not. If it’s not possible, we move on to another hypothesis; if we’re right, we continue to blaze down that trail to learn more about the system we’re studying. And like the journalistic definition of truth, scientific truth is also changeable. We have to shift our idea of how things work if enough support comes in that refutes our original hypothesis or theory. In reality, good science and good journalism is all conducted in a “post-truth” manner, in the sense that the fields must embrace the best version of truth at the time while discarding any inconsistent theories they encounter as they progress through a story or through a series of experiments.
Unlike scientists who tell stories with data, journalists have to retrieve information leading to the truth in other ways. This can include attending events such as press conferences or sporting competitions or by reading official documents, papers, or books. Journalists also rely on other people to help provide stories and perspectives, which generally involves interviewing and cross-checking against other sources to provide support for statements (more on interviews in next week’s post). Truth-finding for journalists involves 1) gathering information and views/perspectives, 2) checking if statements can be supported by facts, 3) evaluating the relevance of new facts for telling a story, 4) helping the audience know what the truth means, and 5) telling the story accurately and clearly.
In order to tell the truth in an effective way, a journalist must be open-minded, especially when it comes to evaluating the relevance of facts for a story. Part of being involved in a post-truth world comes from cherry-picking results or statements that fulfill a central idea that we have already. Science is also guilty of cherry-picking facts in order to tell a story from a specific perspective, so making active considerations for any biases is crucial for telling any story, be it for news or for science. News also must be engaging; it can’t simply be presented as a list of facts. You have to explain the context, the meaning, and the significance. Scientists should also recognize that data and scientific evidence is more effective when provided within context, as tables and bar charts will only get you so far when trying to convince someone that your version of the truth is the best one out there.
While telling a story that’s a reflection of the truth, it’s crucial for both scientists and journalists to be impartial about the subject at hand. A writer (or scientist) is unbiased when he or she does not take sides when both researching and presenting new material and when the results of the work are a detached assessment of the facts uncovered. Achieving impartiality generally involves working towards the following goals: 1) accuracy, 2) fairness (presenting the subject in a way that deals with it proportionately), 3) balance (rather than presenting two sides equally, balance should be obtained by weighting things by the amount of evidence), 4) having no conflict of interest in the outcome of the story, 5) being open minded, and 6) telling the story with appropriate context.
We might envision journalists as being pressured to sell a story or to skew the facts that make a news piece more click-worthy, but can scientists say that they aren’t guilty of the same? Do we not also have our own favorite proteins or algorithms that we want to see succeed and become crucial pieces of some large scientific puzzle? Professional scientists should also recognize the importance of impartiality in doing good science and to avoid the pitfalls of becoming too enamored with a favorite technique, protein, or algorithm.
Our words and our papers have power to them, regardless of the impact factor of the journal or how many citations we get. Our work will inevitably be built upon by someone else, and our words that we use to tell our scientific stories should reflect our work in an accurate way. Every word we use contributes to the picture and supports our ideas—and being impartial also means we should choose our words accurately and fairly, words which are congruent with what we’re actually showing. In a “post-truth” world, it is our duty as scientists to strive for a truth that is not comprised but rather enhanced by our desire to share our science.
Next week in our series, we’ll discuss interviewing and working with other people to get facts—another step towards becoming a citizen science journalist. Until then, only 7 days left of #AcWriMo!!
I have a bad habit of overextending myself. It’s a habit that rears its head in many ways, from reading days where I end up printing more interesting papers than I actually read or opening tabs from Wikipedia that expand through the complete realm of time and space. To ensure that I had more than enough to do this autumn, I enrolled in an online journalism course available on Coursera. The six week course satisfied my goal of learning something new about a field that I’ve become more interested in lately, a chance to explore the underlying methods and philosophies behind something that people interact with everyday. Modern journalism has seen some controversy lately, especially in the wake of recent events leading up to Brexit and the US Presidential election.
This week has seen a lot of fall-out about the US election results. Everything from criticizing Facebook for not sifting out the false news from the real or creating a world of biased newsfeeds, as well as the endless spins on candidate statements or poll results that you could possibly imagine. But we don’t just see this in political news, and science is not immune to the shifting tides of news and the media. Take dietary guidelines, for example: Eggs were at one pointed considered unhealthy, but now they’re good for us. A beer a day can apparently prevent stroke and heart disease but low to moderate amounts of alcohol consumption causes several types of cancer. And who even knows what red wine is really doing.
As scientists we can easily evaluate and even criticize the bad science that goes viral or the poor reporting of a new research paper. But as a journalist, would you have the same level of discernment when readying a story for rapid publication? What can scientists learn from journalism in terms of making our stories clear accurate yet also gripping and impactful in a news-worthy way?
This week we’ll be introducing some basic concepts of journalism to give you a break from your paper writing during #AcWriMo. Next week we’ll talk about interviews and storytelling, and in the final week of November we’ll discuss how you can become an engaged citizen science journalist on your own. But first, the basics: what is journalism and who are journalists?*
*Note: This information is a summary of the excellent online course, “Journalism skills for engaged citizens”, by the University of Melborne. This course was really great, so be sure to check out Coursera and keep an eye out for the next session if you’re interested!
Journalism and journalists have a primary obligation to the truth. Good journalism is not marketing and it’s not personal opinion: it should be the most accurate depiction of a story based on the journalist’s understanding of the facts. In this sense, journalistic truth is the process of assembling and verifying facts, namely the facts which provide the most accurate depiction of truth at the time that the article is written. Sound familiar? In principal, the foundations of science and of journalism are more similar than not. The scientific method is also objective and one which uses experiments and hypotheses to come to an answer about how the world works, given the knowledge that we have at this stage in time. Ideas and theories change when we get new data, just as a story evolves when new angles or facts come in. Another important similarity to remember is that while the methods of both journalism and science are objective, journalists and scientists are not--we are all humans and make mistakes or can be biased to seeing things in a particular way. That being said, both fields also have guidelines and support for ensuring that objectivity and truth is the focus of the story or the research.
Journalism is storytelling with purpose. A news story must be interesting and relevant to an audience, which is also one reason why stories can become over-sensationalized or hyperbolized. While the audience is the one who decides if a story is relevant or exciting for them, it’s the role of the journalist to both find a story that will attract audience interest and to tell that story in a way that’s accurate. News is fundamentally something that people don’t know already and will also find interesting. News-worthy stories generally have a number of key ‘values’. The primary values include magnitude (the number affected/size of the event), negativity (bad news, conflict, or disruption tend to feel more news-worthy than good stories), and proximity (if the affected group is local or has some cultural/emotional empathy or connection). Secondary values include recency, prominence of the parties involved, stories that discuss emotion or the human condition (known as pathos), shock/surprise of the story, clarity (simple > complex), and the ability of the story to challenge what is already known.
Sound familiar? Probably not as much as the first point. In science, we tell our stories very objectively, much in how we also find out the story in the first place. When we write a manuscript we aren’t trying to over-sell our story or convince our audience of the newsworthy-ness of our article. We let the data speak for itself, in part because we are talking to other scientists and in part because that’s how science is typically done. Scientists tend to think that their own problems are interesting simply because they are interesting—we are engrossed with our projects and our data, with many of us believing that the publication in of itself is sufficient to gain further interest without the need for further reporting or promotion. Science communication efforts are focused on bridging this gap between science and the public in part by sharing science in forums beyond research journals and conferences. But scientists and science communicators also need to recognize that science communication is more than just telling the stories: if the work doesn’t feel close, relevant, big, or clear, it won’t resonate with an audience. People may never care about our work if it doesn’t connect to them in some convincing way.
Journalists put the biggest ideas first. Scientists and journalists present ideas very differently, which can explain in part why some stories seem to over-hype the results of research studies. In a research article, the long-term goals or broader impacts may make an appearance as a bit of text in an abstract or a discussion, and these may only have a secondary application in the overall findings of the paper. For example, a paper on the genetic regulations of prostate cancer might mention curing cancer as one of the aims of the research, but no cancer will be directly cured from the findings of the paper itself. An article popped up on my newsfeed several weeks about with an alarming headline connecting environmental pollutants in car exhaust to Alzheimer’s. While the paper does demonstrate a correlation between magnetite levels (evaluated in the brains of patients from urban areas in Mexico and Manchester, UK) with incidence of Alzheimer’s, the results were still only correlative, and with no non-urban control samples to compare these findings against.
The headline wasn’t a complete stretch, but also wasn’t exactly what the paper showed: you didn’t hear about the limitations of the article until you dug further into the text, after the important journalistic point of the connection between environmental nanoparticles and brain diseases. A scientist may put out a press release on findings from a research paper which from their perspective accurately separates the “big picture maybe” from the details and the facts presented in the paper itself. But a journalist might catch on to the big picture maybe as the most important part of the story—the one that will connect to readers more than the detailed methods and the relevance of the error bars. In this sense, understanding how stories are structured from a journalists’ perspective can help scientist understand that reporting casualties can arise not from fear-mongering or bad intentions but simply from looking at the parts of a paper or a press release and interpreting a big picture/long-term maybe as an immediate truth. In our last post of this series we’ll go into detail about news story structure and how to take this into account when working to become a better science communicator.
Journalism stands up to the principle that people have a right to information. In addition to the duty of truth telling, journalists also have their primary loyalty in informing citizens while “describing society to itself”. Journalists, editors, and news organizations undoubtedly have their own perspectives and bias, but they are also held accountable to their duty towards the public. Here we can envision a parallel between scientists and journalists: even in our own careers and interests, scientists have a duty to do good science and to ensure that work done with tax-payer dollars is of high-quality and open to scrutiny by others.
But there are also some striking differences in this regard. While science is becoming more open, there is still a tendency to keep data and information within a research community and to focus on the peers who judge our work and its quality instead of members the public. Good journalism is meant to provide a map that enables people to navigate society on their own, when provided with the truth and the facts in a clear and accurate way. Does good science do the same? Do scientists actively help the world reflect on where it came from, what it is, and where it’s going next?
As scientists working in one of the most well-connected eras in terms of communication opportunities, we have a chance to make an even bigger impact than simply publishing research papers. But we’re up against a flurry of news, stories, and sensationalism, and it’s a time where folks in different fields are better off working together than pointing fingers at one another. Scientists can learn a lot from the approaches used by journalists in order to better connect and resonate with a broader audience. Next week we’ll talk about interviewing/fact-finding and will follow up the last week with some tips that will enable you to start telling impactful and accurate stories about science and the world around us.
I’m taking a break from the blog both this and next week to focus on some other writing projects, but in the meantime I thought I’d delve into the archives of my personal blog I kept while a graduate student. This one was one of my early attempts at science communication and focused on a restored lake which was in the middle of the University of Florida campus. Nice to have a bit of a walk down memory lane to remember the good times in The Gator Nation. Enjoy!
“The Story of Lake Alice: Finding the right balance between nature, administration, and aesthetics”
Originally published on "A toxicologist's tale", 11 Sept 2012
5pm rolls around and you’re more than ready for the end of the day. Whether your day is spent in class, at work, teaching, or doing research, we all need a place to unwind after a busy day here at UF. Many of us seek out natural areas to cleanse our minds and bring perspective to the tumultuous moments we go through each week. For many students and staff, the hallmark oasis of these natural areas on campus is Lake Alice. It’s a place for relaxing walk with friends to look for alligators and soft shell turtles, for a vigorous jog through the winding trees near the Baughman center, or for waiting patiently at the bat house for dusk to fall. Lake Alice provides us with so many easily accessible and engaging ways to enjoy the many pleasantries of nature.
But perhaps on occasion you’ve noticed things that made you wonder just how pleasant these natural areas on campus really are. Maybe a powerful smell as you jog along the north shore, the extremely turbid waters in the creek at Gale Lemerand and Museum Road as you walk downhill to the commuter lot, or the incidences when the whole lake turns bright green. You’ve likely asked yourself what these events mean for our lake, if our lake is as clean and healthy as it should be, and if you should be concerned about any of it. But before jumping into conclusions about how healthy our lake really is, we need to take a step back and understand how the quality of water bodies is defined and the numerous roles our treasured Lake Alice holds for our campus.
Lake Alice has a rich and varied history since the lake and the land around it was purchased by UF in 1925. At that time, the only sources of water input into Lake Alice were rain, storm water runoff, and untreated sewage. As UF continued to expand, the direct input of sewage into the lake was no longer seen as a sustainable option, so treated effluent was discharged starting in the 1960’s. In 1994 the Water Reclamation Plant was built, and now the treated effluent is no longer discharged directly to the lake but is piped to one of Lake Alice’s discharge wells. Lake Alice currently receives water from stormwater and irrigation runoff that enters from the connecting creeks.
Lake Alice is not here only to serve as a oasis for us: Lake Alice and the other lakes on campus are also the official storm water retention ponds for UF. These on-campus lakes are under the regulation of the federal government as part of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that the university holds. Holders of these permits are required to identify and prevent non-point sources of pollution, which includes things like irrigation chemicals and contaminated runoff from roads near the lake and connecting creeks. As part of the broader plan for waters on campus, UF also wants to help Lake Alice reach Class 3 water quality standards for the state of Florida. Meeting these criteria would mean that the lake is suitable for “fish consumption, recreation, propagation and maintenance of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife.” Lake Alice is also a recognized conservation area (so no fishing or swimming allowed, even if the lake does meet Class 3 standards) and it serves as home to over 75 plant species and 60 animal species—including our university’s mascot the American Alligator.
With all of these different functions and regulations—storm water retention area to the federal government, a potential Class 3 water body for Florida, and a wildlife conservation area—how is UF keeping up with the array of unique demands from administration and nature alike? One approach to monitoring if these demands are met was by the establishment of the Clean Water campaign in 2003. Dr. Mark Clark, one of the founding members of the campaign and a professor of the Department of Soil and Water Science here at UF, is currently overseeing the outreach and public awareness efforts of this group. These activities include installing drain markers to inform people that campus drains flow into Lake Alice, volunteer clean-up efforts, and educating the public on water quality issues.
Another major facet of the Clean Water campaign is monthly water quality sampling events that have taken place since 2003 at 20 locations all over campus. Some of the locations include the creek near the New Engineering Building, Hume Creek in Graham woods, and the Baughman Center bridge. Based on the water quality data collected so far, there are two main chemicals that have the potential to cause problems for the competing regulations imposed by administration and the natural requirements for having a healthy lake: nitrogen and phosphorus. Both of these chemicals can cause algal blooms and plant overgrowth as well as decreased oxygen levels. Decreased oxygen can cause fish deaths and lead to an imbalance in the different types of wildlife that live at the lake.
In addition to the work by the Clean Water campaign, students of Drs. Dan Canfield and Chuck Cichra have been collecting water quality and fish population data as part of the Introduction to Fisheries Science (FAS 4305C) and Fish and Limnology (FAS 6932) courses for over 30 years. In lectures and hands-on field work, students learn how to collect and interpret water quality readings and how to estimate fish population structure and size. One of the lessons these students learned when the course was first offered is that an aesthetically-pleasing lake is not always the best lake for fish. In previous years when the lake was bright green—before the treated effluent was re-routed—Dr. Canfield and Dr. Cichra’s students were amazed at the large size of bass and other sports fish they caught. “They had been taught for years that a green lake was a dead lake. It didn’t take them long to realize that wasn’t the case for many of these fish species,” said Dr. Canfield.
Over the years as the lake has become clearer, data collected by Dr. Canfield’s class indicate that fish populations have declined both in size and number, and there are also fewer ospreys than in years past. Some fish kills have occurred, but Dr. Canfield indicated that these were caused by severe low temperatures and invasive species such as tilapia. Dr. Canfield also stated that “Water quality has become very focused on issues of phosphorus and nitrogen, while ignoring other important issues like bacteria.” Fish living immediately at the discharge site previously had a high rate of infections and fish in the lake still experience these problems, which demonstrate the need for a water quality plan that also looks beyond chemical measurements alone.
So what is the future of Lake Alice and other natural areas on campus? “The next phase is for the university to decide what steps to take to balance the dual roles of having an aesthetically-pleasing lake and an area appropriate for conservation goals,” said Clark. This means incorporating what we know about the watershed from the water quality data that the Clean Water campaign collected into the future goals of our university and identifying the roles it wants Lake Alice to continue to serve.
What does this mean for the rest of us that don’t have a direct impact on the decisions made by the university? While we may not be able to reduce irrigation run-off or help larger fish come back to the lake, there is a lot that we as members of the Gator Nation can do to take ownership of the health and well-being of the waters on our campus. For more information on the Clean Water campaign, visit http://campuswaterquality.ifas.ufl.edu to learn about events and activities. You can also become a part of UF’s wetlands club and participate in volunteer clean-up efforts around campus and in the Gainesville area. To learn first-hand about lakes, fisheries, and water quality issues, sign up for Dr. Canfield’s and Dr. Cichra’s course, taught each Spring and open to any junior or senior-level students with an interest in the subject.
Our lake has undergone numerous transformations during the changes in water inputs and usage over the years, and the lake will likely not remain in its current state forever. The future of the water bodies on campus hinges on finding the correct balance between nature, administration, and the future expansion of our university. And while you may not be able to have a direct impact on decisions made by our university, you can do your part to help protect these important natural areas by becoming aware of the issues and history of our lake and becoming active in clean-up or educational efforts.
A common theme in this blog is science communication: whether it’s advice on how to talk about your research at holiday get-togethers or how you can present your research findings to a scientific audience, I certainly enjoy writing about how to communicate, and I’m not the only blogger who does. But as the old saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach,” and perhaps I’ve been guilty of not following my own advice, even advice from my own blog posts.
At family get-togethers I tend to be the wallflower that greatly enjoys hearing about what my family is up to but the one who hates talking for more than a minute or two about what I’m up to apart from “Oh, you know, busy in the lab.” When meeting new people, scientists or not, I tend to give the same 5-second reply of “I’m a biologist” or “I do research” and move on to the next question or topic as quickly as possible. I feel guilty for this, realizing that I’m not doing as I preach in my blog, but in the moment of meeting someone or talking to my aunts and uncles about my work, I panic and resort to the easiest and shortest way out of the topic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of how to become a better doer as well as a teacher in the realm of science communication. This has been spurred by being involved with outreach activities through my University, taking public engagement training courses, and, most recently, reading ‘Modern Poisons’ and seeing how my undergrad professor Dr. Kolok talks about toxicology. This week’s post is an attempt to layout my thoughts from the past few weeks on how to talk about my research in a way that will strike a chord with more people than just my fellow toxicologists, using an analogy that connects my research to another hobby of mine: public transportation systems.
There are a lot of joys you can experience while travelling: seeing new cultures, meeting new people, trying new foods, and feeling the vibe of a new city. For me, there’s yet another joy of travelling: maps. That excitement of getting a city guide that lists all of the key sightseeing points, but what’s even more exciting for me are the big underground railway and mass transit maps, displaying all the colorful connections throughout the city, the stops you can explore, and the numerous neighborhoods that are all within your reach.
The same excitement I get while looking over a new city’s mass transit map is the same type of excitement I got when first learning about molecular biology. I remember my fascination while sitting in the front row (yes, I was that person) of junior year molecular biology class at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught by the Biology department Chair and enthusiastic instructor Dr. Tapprich. I was mesmerized by the intricacies of the biochemical pathways, how feedback loops between one enzyme to another in the same pathway kept every process related to metabolism under tight control, and how a system as complex as a human body could be interconnected through these pathways that are invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps my fascination between the two seemingly unrelated topics, mass transit and molecular biology, is due to their similarities. Public transportation connects a city of diverse neighborhoods and helps it function on a daily basis by moving people around, similar to how the intricately linked biochemical pathways control everything from our metabolism, immune system responses, organ function, and, in general, keep us functioning on a daily (and lifelong) basis.
But as we know in the real world of public transportation, a daily commute doesn’t always run smoothly. Somewhere along the line, a signal is down, a train gets backed up, or a train car has too many passengers getting on and off and ends up late to its next destination. A small snag can sometimes fix itself, maybe a late train makes up some time at the next stop, or a signal is fixed in a hurry. But when things don’t get fixed or when broken signals are combined with other malfunctions, the problems can grow even worse, causing delays that spill over and affect other lines, delays that seem to make the whole city come to a standstill. This is especially true in mega cities like London (see tube map below), a huge amalgam of interconnected lines, zones, and the inevitable delays on a regular basis, all while moving some 8.5 million people across the city.
This is where toxicology comes into my transportation analogy: if molecular biology and biochemistry are the study of the lines and stops that interconnect a city, toxicology is the study of what a transit system can do when things go wrong and what happens when things can’t be fixed quickly enough to keep the city from devolving into disorder, chaos, and in extreme circumstances, complete shut-down.
But while you can study a map of the London underground on your own and fairly easily figure out how to get from Amersham to Oxford Circus, toxicologists learn more about the system by breaking it down into pieces, seeing how different train lines intersect, and seeing what happens in zone 6 when a train breaks down in zone 2. You’ll learn a lot in Dr. Kolok’s book about pesticides, which generally kill pests by over-stimulating an enzyme involved in transmitting neural signals. This would be like a broken signal at Ravenscourt Park which results in trains leaving the station every 30 seconds instead of every 5 minutes. At some point the trains will start colliding with one another, which is an transit-ified simplification of what happens in the neurological system after pesticide exposure: too many neural signal firings means muscles won’t be able relax, with a constant firing eventually resulting in a complete failure of the system.
For my PhD project, I worked with endocrine disrupting chemicals. The endocrine system is in charge of quite a few important functions in our body, but the most notorious are their control of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system can create cross-overs and confusions in regards to hormone levels and normal development. Think about if you booked tickets to go to South Ealing but ended up arriving at Goldhawk Road instead. In my dissertation I studied a population of fish exposed to chemicals downstream from a paper mill. In this group of fish, the females had a growth on one of their fins that normally males only have-think of a situation where you happen upon a group of women living in a remote area who all have thick moustaches and beards.
Using the publication transportation as a model for toxicology, you can start to imagine the connections between different body systems as well as how things can go wrong at any point along the map. Toxicologists need to understand what happens at the stations, the rail lines, and all the interconnections between places and routes in order to address questions like why a signal failure in Kings Cross can delay trains in West Brompton. In general, toxicologists study very specific trends: what happens when this enzyme doesn’t work or works too well, why a synthetic chemical can cause endocrine disruption, etc. It’s also a way that we classify toxic chemicals based on what lines they impact the most, what stations they hit, or how easy they are to clean up afterwards.
But what if the problem wasn’t at a specific line or station? How would you study the system if instead of something specific like a signal failure, there was an earthquake? In theory, just about any part of the system could be damaged, ranging from a minor delay due to a small magnitude quake or catastrophic destruction in the event of a large magnitude event. But as countries who live in earthquake-ridden locations know best, there are generally particular areas that get hit the most that can be reinforced to withstand a full-blown earthquake, weak points in a city’s infrastructure that tend to feel the brunt of even a small earthquake more so than others. But how do you find out what these weak points are without waiting to see what a big, potentially damaging earthquake can do firsthand?
The earthquake within this ‘toxicology in transit’ model is called narcosis, and it’s what I’ve been studying for the past 2 and a half years of my post-doc. Narcosis as a field of toxicology has been around for a while, but exactly how narcosis works (i.e. what stations and lines get hit the worst during an earthquake) is still uncertain. We know that narcotic compounds target biological membranes, the master gatekeepers and regulators of what goes in and out of a cell. Cell membranes are like the ticket gates at the station entrance: you can only get in (or out) if you have the right ticket. Membranes have to be good at controlling what is allowed in and out to make sure your cells have the right balance of ions and proteins so the cell can keep running normally. Narcotics break down this barrier and change the properties of the cell membrane, effectively letting anyone in (and out) instead of keeping things tightly regulated.
But the problem is that we don’t know exactly what happens when membranes go wild. Think back to the transit example with an earthquake: Do all the train signals stop working, or just a select or key few? Are there delays on all the lines, or are there a few key lines that once they get out of whack cause the whole city to be in disarray? While my project is still ongoing, it looks like it’s the latter that can explain what we see in narcosis. Narcotic chemicals tend to impact neurological signaling, and in my project we’ve found that biochemical pathways related to neuronal function tend to be more impacted than others. While the narcosis earthquake is still a random event in that any membrane in a cell can be impacted, the ones related to sensation and body movement tend to get hit more than others. This allows us to take a closer look at the stations and rail lines impacted by an earthquake, and to better understand more precisely how narcosis happens and why.
So that’s my post-doc career in a nutshell: studying cellular earthquakes and transitioning my love of travel maps into a career in science. While I came up with the idea on a bit of a whim, I’ve found that getting started with actually putting thoughts into words and concrete ideas is the hardest step, and perhaps also the scariest: you feel like you’ll get something wrong, or that you won’t be able to write something as clear as you see it in your head, or that you’ll go through all the trouble and still have no one who understands it. My only advice here from the ‘teacher’ side is to just give it a try. If something doesn’t come out perfectly, you can always try again and learn from what did and didn’t work the first time around.
During the rest of the summer I’ll continue putting my science communication skills into the ‘doing’ stage and will also have some additional posts on science communication approaches and techniques. Next week we’ll revisit our Heroes of Science series, and we also look forward to some upcoming collaborations with the Ecotox blog and the EuroScientists blog. Until next week, we wish you a summer of delay-free commutes (if there is such a thing!).
We’ve talked in previous posts about many of the additional jobs required of scientists besides research. Science communication is at the top of the list, and the importance of strong communication skills for scientists has become clearer now than ever before. In some of our previous posts, we’ve focused on ways you can communicate your science when asked the dreaded question of ‘So, how’s research?’ at a get-together with family or friends or how you can adopt the use of a narrative approach to set up your scientific story. It’s also important for us to think beyond our own research and consider sharing the concepts, findings, and ideas of an entire field of study. Are there ways that we can better communicate the wider scope of our scientific research to an even broader audience?
At the SETAC meeting last autumn in Salt Lake City, I had a chance to catch up with my undergrad thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok, who set out to do just that for toxicology. I spoke with him over the phone this winter about his project of writing Modern Poisons and his perspectives on undertaking the endeavor of translating toxicology for a lay audience. I also had a chance to read the newly-minted e-book version this spring, which you can pick up on Amazon or directly from the Island Press website.
You might find the book a surprisingly short read, something you can get through in a week or so of easy reading, and there’s a reason for that. Kolok was initially inspired by the paperback Why big fierce animals are rare, a book written by the late Paul Colinvaix, an ecology professor who worked at The Ohio State University and later at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The book is dense in basic ecology but uses short, 5-minute chapters to get the message across. Kolok was inspired by the book as an undergraduate student and the way in which these complex concepts in ecology could be conveyed in short, easy-to-read sections for a broad audience. Kolok wanted to do something similar for the field of toxicology: a book that could be read by anyone, from accountant to zoologist, and a book that would enable them to have a better understanding of the concepts and common misconceptions within toxicology.
As researchers we work primarily in a single field and with the occasional jaunt into interdisciplinary territory. It’s easy to forget how specialized we are even compared to scientists working in other fields, even ones that might seem similar at first. Kolok was initially surprised by comments on a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation about why PCBS aren’t metabolized but PAHs are and why EDCs impact fish differently than humans. To the toxicologist, these concepts (and acronyms) seem like common knowledge, but for someone who’s an epidemiologist or an electrophysiologist won’t understand concepts like biotransformation as much as a toxicologist will. After seeing these comments, Kolok realized that even for a field as large as toxicology, there was really only one major textbook dedicated to the principles of the field. While this is a great textbook, it’s not exactly pocket-sized, and certainly not a light read or for those who simply want to pique their interest on the topic.
Three years ago, Kolok set out to write Modern Poisons as a short and easy-to-digest book on the basics of toxicology. While the book is currently available as an undergraduate textbook, it was initially meant to be a short book for lay readers, including advanced high school students, who are interested in toxicology. In order to reach this broad audience, Kolok’s approach was to use the power of metaphors. Kolok is a firm believer of the value of anecdotes as a way of explaining complex concepts to people who don’t come from a scientific background. This approach is used to tackle topics ranging from the geographical distribution of pollutants to emerging questions on topics including nanomaterials and personal care products. This approach enables readers to understand the gist of the problem but leaves the in-depth details for another story.
What became more of a struggle for Kolok during the writing process was achieving the balance between sufficient complexity with understandability. In the past 17 years of teaching toxicology for senior undergraduates at UNO, Kolok has found that a good portion of the course ended up being the study of biochemical pathways. While this isn’t the core of toxicology per se, it was still something that all students needed to understand so that concepts such as enzyme induction by dioxins and pesticides binding to the acetylcholine receptor could be better understood. The book subsequently follows in parallel to how Kolok teaches, not only in the specifics of the enzymes and pathways discussed but in general in the sense of how the system works as a whole and how different pieces can end up in disarray during a chemical onslaught.
Kolok used Modern Poisons as a textbook in his toxicology course last autumn, where he provided the book as an overview and then used the course to go into greater details. While this required Kolok to re-think his course and revamp his presentation style, he was also able to get feedback on the book before it went to publication. His students really enjoyed the book and were able to read each chapter and make specific comments on what worked and what didn’t. After four years of droll textbooks for classes, Kolok’s senior-level toxicology course enjoyed a book with a more conversational and informal tone and approach, and Kolok plans to use Modern Poisons again in the upcoming semester.
While the book did take three years to write, it wasn’t evenly spread over all 20 chapters. Kolok found that some ideas or concepts came easier and were written faster, while for others he needed to either think about how to go into detail while still being clear, and other concepts required him to go back to the literature. The amount of time spent during that year also varied, as Kolok was still teaching and doing research, but on some occasions spent nearly 20 hours a week at writing. Thanks to a quarterly series of articles he had written for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kolok did have some starting material from 16 lay person articles of around 800 words, each focused on a topic within toxicology.
Even with some starting material, however, the process was still not always an easy one. “When you’re writing a review paper, your input is scientific material and your output is more scientific material. It’s harder when you’re taking scientific materials and translating them into something else. You have to read a lot in order to understand and then translate without losing the complexity,” Kolok commented. Kolok admitted that he wasn’t always the most efficient at this: some concepts ended up ‘translating’ rather easily but others were more difficult, and some ideas and chapters had to be completely redone. Kolok reinforced the need for good self-critique during the writing process and admitting when you need to restart something completely. While this was a challenge throughout the writing process, Kolok admits that “When you feel like you finally got it right, it’s really satisfying.”
While the first edition of the book is done and in print (or e-book, if you prefer a digital format), Kolok is already thinking about what the next version will look like, but after some time off from book writing, since Kolok emphasized that part of being productive also involves taking a break now and again. The next edition is likely to include some figures and a few changes in sections that Kolok feel could be improved, especially as new research comes out and new stories become prominent in the news, and to go into more detail on certain topics that could only be covered broadly in the first iteration.
“I’d never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book,” Kolok remarked, and said that by writing this book he activated a more creative part of his brain than normal science writing. “This type of writing feels like a creative challenge compared to scientific writing. I got to expand my creativity and the horizon of my writing, I got to use more creative words and tell short stories instead of journal articles.” Kolok even went so far as to say that writing more creatively felt like learning a new lab technique, and that while in research and as a professor he was and is still writing, he now has a new perspective on it. Kolok even said that the amount of scientific writing he’s done has increased, and he’s now more motivated to write and finish papers, in addition to thinking about continuing his career in writing after retiring from research as a second career.
I greatly enjoyed reading Modern Poisons, and even having background knowledge in toxicology the book didn’t feel like anything was too glossed over or watered down. One student commented that “Dr. K writes like he talks, very conversationally, and I mean that in a good way,” and I certainly agree with that sentiment. Reading this book felt like being in Kolok’s undergraduate toxicology course all over again, a reminder of why I began my PhD in toxicology in the first place: the fascination I felt while learning about what happens when good biological plans and infrastructure go awry. It also spurred my own thoughts on how I could talk about my own research better, which was one of the topics not mentioned in Kolok’s book: narcosis. I agree with Kolok that toxicology should be understood by more than toxicologists, especially since a lot of what we do impacts what chemicals we use in our homes, on our foods, and in our drugs. I’ve already passed along the book to science-oriented friends and non-science-oriented family members who have asked me time and time again to tell them about what I’m doing at work. Thanks to Dr. K, I can just send them the link to the Amazon page and avoid a lengthy discussion on biological membranes over Christmas dinner!
It’s not just toxicology that benefits from books like this: scientists are trained to become specialized in their own fields, and a person that hasn’t been in a science class since high school may have forgotten what the inside of a cell looks like or from what direction the moon rises from. While it may not be an easy endeavor to bring every research concept to the lay person, now is the time to start thinking how you can translate science into a story that people can connect and relate to. I’m thankful for Dr. Kolok’s inspiration in telling the story of toxicology for everyone, and am hopeful that more science-oriented books like this in the future will grace the bedside tables of many curious readers to come.
Last week I heard a great podcast news report about the way we talk about scientists and how that can inspire (or intimidate) those in the next generation and affect their desire to become scientists. In the US, we tend to talk about scientists as being geniuses, as having brilliant ideas and doing groundbreaking work that’s changed the course of our lives. But apparently that’s not a good way to motivate children to pursue science as a career path. Talking about scientists like they are super-human geniuses causes children to believe that since they aren’t geniuses, they’re not cut out for science. This is in contrast to how the stories of scientists are told in China, where the focus is on hard work. The podcast also describes a study in which kids were told stories about scientists in the context of being geniuses, in the context of personal struggle/hard work, and even in the context of having to ask colleagues for help when they were stuck. The kids who were told the ‘struggle’ stories were not only more engaged with science activities in the classroom, they even performed better on science tests.
The results of this study fascinated me throughout the week. Just by talking differently about scientists, about ourselves, we can motivate students not only to become more interested in science, but even to do better in exams. By relating how great scientists also faced challenges and persevered, children recognize the need for hard-work and determination and won’t give up if they find they are not as brilliant as Einstein. This study also got me thinking about stories as a whole. Science communication is essentially about telling a story with impact, to motivate and inspire…but as scientists, are we equipped to be able to tell these types of stories?
As an undergraduate in Environmental Studies, my formal training in writing was, well, very formal. We had a specialized course for students in the biological sciences, and if you were going to be an engineer or a banker you were in a different technical writing class. While these courses were clearly designed as an introduction to what writing would look like for the jobs we would end up in, I wonder in hindsight if this is the wrong way to go about a formalized training in how to write. Yes, as scientists we need to know how to talk about p-values, how to structure a manuscript, and how to write an abstract, but this type of knowledge seems to come as easily through practice as it does through formal, classroom-based training. What is more of a challenge is for us to figure out how to talk to people outside of science, given that we spend so much of our time since undergrad learning how to talk with ourselves. Could this be the block between science and the public: simply an issue of not knowing how to tell a story in the classic way because we’re only trained to talk to ourselves?
In contrast to being trained as a scientist, if you did your undergraduate in marketing you’d be thoroughly trained in how to tell a story, in this sense with the goal of leaving a lasting impression on someone, an impression so strong that they might even be biased towards buying the product or service you’re selling. One way that marketers do this is by using stories, and marketers do this for a reason: stories are a means to connect with emotions, and if you connect with the emotions of a person, you can create a more memorable connection. Whether it’s an ad about a horse and a dog who are best friends or a simple ‘We lived’ following a close-up of car crash wreckage, the ads with memorable content are the ones that impact our buying decisions, which are usually driven by emotion instead of logic. Another example of the impact of stories can be found in (name of teacher’s) marketing classroom. She asked each student to make a one-minute pitch for an imaginary product. Nine out of ten students presented facts and figures to make their case, but one student told a story about the product. When the audience was asked to remember things from the ten pitches, 5% could recall a specific figure or statistic, but 63% of them remembered the story.
When someone tells you a story, they are also directing your brain’s activity. If you read or listen to a story of someone running or jumping, versus just being read a list of words with no context, your brain visualizes the actions, and activates the same ‘motor planning’ brain regions that are used when you get ready to do a physical activity yourself. In comparison, the words in isolation or outside the context of a story simply activate the language processing center of a brain. Think for a moment about reading a scientific paper versus an action-adventure novel: in the novel you can empathize and represent the activity, but can you do the same thing when all you have are facts, figures, and abstract concepts?
So what do these examples from marketing and psychology mean for scientists? Early on in our careers, we’re trained to write very technically, to sound like a scientist, to talk about our work in the context of figures, error bars, statistical significance, and developing logical conclusions that fall within the bounds of our results. This is how science works: we’re presented with a hypothesis, we address that hypothesis with experiments, and we come to a conclusion about the state of the universe from those results. But at the same time, we are also human beings, as are our colleagues, our collaborators, and all the members of the public that fund our research in one way or another. Our brains are hard-wired to understand and be moved by stories, and while we’re trained to trust statistics and plots, we can still be swayed by the powerful emotions of empathy, joy, sadness, and fear.
But we can’t just tell scientists to go out there and tell stories, because science stories are not the same as the ones from marketing, literature, or art. Our stories aren’t here to entertain or to entertain or to sell a product, but are rather a means of working towards an understanding of how life, the universe, and everything in between works. It’s unfair to trivialize our hard-work using the foundations of the scientific method using sensationalism and fear-mongering, but it doesn’t mean that scientists can’t be storytellers, too.
In previous posts we’ve touched a bit on methods and approaches for writing and how you can frame your manuscript as a problem and solution approach. In the context of storytelling, you can think of your research as something akin to a mystery novel: you present some ‘case’ that needs to be solved, you describe your method for cracking the case, and present to the reader your conclusions as to who-done-it. Other options include presenting your science story with some relevant background (i.e. why the research happened) followed by the consequences of your work (why it matters). These approaches have also been formally adopted in materials developed for schools, with the aims of telling stories about scientists as a way to motivate and inspire them to get involved in science. A quote from one of this article: “Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible?" So while there is some dialogue about how to tell these stories, especially for educators, how can we as scientists, more fully embrace the power of storytelling in our own work?
Interestingly enough, if you search for ‘how to tell a story’ versus ‘how to write a scientific manuscript’, you’ll come up with very different results. This one from Forbes is a simple list of to do’s that also echoes what we’ve touched on in our Five Easy* Steps presentation posts. In contrast, the ‘scientific manuscript’ guidelines are more guidelines for structure and less for impact, for example in what order to write the introduction versus the materials and methods. These are helpful guidelines in the context of the science side, but what about the storytelling side? How can we connect storytelling to science? While there are a few websites with some pointers on how to tell stories, here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Don’t tell people something is important: make them believe it. Instead of telling your reader that your research is great and then give them a list of reasons why, describe for them the world in which your research sits. Paint the picture of what your field looks like and how your research fits into it. People, scientists included, will not instantly respond to being told that something is important, we need to realize for ourselves that it’s important and develop some connection to the problem. Hook your readers in with a story about what your world (of research) looks like. What are the mysteries still unsolved? What have people worked to figure out but in vain have yet to find an answer to? What will happen if nothing gets done? This isn’t about telling lies to make your work seem more important, or in foregoing facts for sensationalism, but focuses on presenting why people should care instead of just telling them to do so.
If people remember one thing, what should it be? Regardless of whether it’s a manuscript, a blog post, an email, or an oral presentation, people will forget things. Details will get lost in the numerous other details you present, they might lose attention, or you might just be giving them too much information at once. Think of what your big-picture take-home message is, and make sure that gets across. Put it in your abstract, at the end of your introduction, at the beginning of your discussion, and at the end of your conclusion. Tell your readers again and again what you want them to remember, and you’ll ensure that portion at least sticks with them.
Write what you want to read. As scientists we’ve been trained to write in a certain way-but that style is primarily focused on structure, not content. These are the sections you should include, these are how you transition from introduction to methods, etc. The structure is important and should be kept, but it’s not the only tool we can use as writers. Use the advice from writers and from advertisers in terms of crafting the story and the vocabulary you use. As long as the science is there, using approaches from other fields is a valid way of setting up your paragraphs and structuring your sentences. If you don’t like reading papers that drone on about ‘therefore, XYZ’ and ‘henceforth, ABC’, then don’t write those papers. Say what you found, what it means, and why it’s important in the context of your story, and be simple and clear about how you got to the conclusion you did.
Read stories by good writers. We’ve already touched on this recommendation in other posts, and there’s a reason we mention it again. We generate a lot of our vocabulary and the way we talk from the people around us. If you spend time with someone that says ‘like’ or ‘totally’ a lot, you’ll totally, like, pick up on it, too. The same goes for writing: if you read what good writers write, it helps you do the same. You pick up on examples of how to transition between ideas, what words or phrases are memorable, and what analogies are helpful for conveying a message. While there are examples of good writing in the scientific literature, take a break from science reading and explore some blogs, news articles, or books whose focus is a story in order to get some insights into how to tell your own.
Write something other than science. It’s hard to put into practice narrative or story-based writing if you keep writing using the same structure you’ve done before already. Try expanding your writing repertoire by penning a creative short story or a news article instead. See how it feels to write something when logic isn’t at the forefront. How do you convey a complex topic? How do you transition between complex ideas? Practice how you can connect words and ideas which aren’t driven by science and then take those lessons into your own science writing efforts.
Thankfully, we have a lot of great science storytellers to learn from. If you want to get inspired, be sure to check out the works of Carl Sagan and Steven Johnson. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing a book review on Modern Poisons, a lay person’s guide to toxicology, with some insights on how to write a science book for a non-scientific audience from the author (and my former undergrad honors thesis advisor) Alan Kolok.
And they communicated their science happily ever after.
Last week we began our how-to-guide with the key steps that need to be taken before you start writing a manuscript. We stressed the importance of reading, both the scientific literature relevant for your field, as well as the benefits of personal reading outside of science. Reading ensures that you have key information fresh in your mind, and also shows you how other people write and construct a story. You will be the one that makes your own unique manuscript, but other manuscripts can show you what a finished product looks like in terms of organization and structure. We also went into some detail on making an outline, or if you prefer, a storyboard. This provides the framework you will build off as you start putting your story together.
Before jumping into the five steps for writing manuscripts, I wanted to touch briefly on your writing environment. I’ve heard some people say that they can only write in a certain setting, that they write better at home or in the office or in a sound-proof room, or that they have specific needs in order to get writing done (e.g., loud music, complete silence, endless coffee, bottomless pretzels, and really anything in between). It’s good to have a process in place or a tool that can help you write, but be cautious of getting stuck in the mindset of feeling like you can only write under certain conditions.
There will be times in your day or your week when you’ll have some downtime, whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour between running experiments or going to meetings. If you’re thinking about ideas for a manuscript, write them down as they come. Even if it’s a paragraph that you only end up using a couple of sentences from, it’s important to get these ideas out there in a tangible form so you can rearrange and polish them latter. Writing is one of the most important parts of being a scientist. It documents both your thoughts and your hard work and transforms them into a story someone else can learn from-so preparing yourself to be ready to write at any time and in a variety of settings is an important career skill.
Step 1: What’s the story, morning glory?
Going back to Step 0, what do you have at this point? You have a detailed story board/outline of the relevant literature in your field, you have your figures in a mostly finished state…now what? Before you start taking that story board apart and fitting the ideas into text, write the last paragraph of your introduction. In our last post we mentioned that this paragraph describes the ‘Aim of paper, experimental objectives, and also list any specific hypotheses.’
But why do we start here? This is the core of your story: what you’re doing, how you did it, and what you thought you’d get. From a more philosophical viewpoint, this is also a key part of the scientific method, showing the progress between ideas and knowledge and how you use your work to generate new information to shed light on something not known before.
To see this in action, I’ve included the last paper from my PhD, which ended up being one of my personal favorite papers, partly because of lessons learned the hard way in the first two papers. I’ve highlighted the key areas:
'The objective of this study was to evaluate changes in gene expression coupled with in vitro nuclear receptor assays to evaluate the androgenicity of water downstream of the paper mill on the Fenholloway River. Two specific aims were developed: (1) evaluate mRNA levels of vtg, 17βhsd3, and zp2 in the liver, shh in the anal fin, and global hepatic gene expression profiles associated with paper mill exposure, and (2) determine if chemicals in the Fenholloway River could bind to the ligand binding domain of androgen and progesterone receptors. We hypothesized that modulations in gene expression patterns and in vitro analyses would be indicative of androgen exposure and that global gene expression analysis via microarrays would provide insights into the mode(s) of actions of the chemicals present in the effluent.'
The study wasn’t a complicated one, and I strove for clarity and simplicity in how I developed this paragraph. Work on this paragraph before any other part of the paper and have your PI or another graduate mentor review it for you. Then once you’ve got them on board with your idea, print it and keep it off to the side to remind you to focus around this core of the paper. Use this paragraph as a framework for your manuscript. As you write, you should be considering how to address the hypothesis/hypotheses using your specific aims and project objectives.
Step 2: Start from the middle
Once you have the last paragraph of the introduction, you’ll actually want to go to the middle part of the paper next. In the case of your manuscript, the introduction is the beginning of the story, the methods/results is the middle, and the discussion is the end. So before jumping back into the introduction, finish the figure captions and write the materials and methods section (as an added bonus, these are also the two easiest parts of the paper to write). A methods section is essentially structuring your lab protocols and procedures into a narrative form—keeping the most relevant parts in the narrative and citing other papers/protocols to keep the section from becoming too long. Writing this easier section first can help you get into the writing ‘mood’ and can also remind you of exactly what you did in the lab before you write about it.
For the results section, keep this to a very cut-and-dry overview of what each figure depicts. This part of the paper shouldn’t include data interpretation, just evaluation. As you’re writing these middle sections, go back to your specific aims and hypotheses and see what the data say about them. Work on these questions and use them to help guide what you say in your results section and also to frame what you’ll bring up in the discussion:
Step 3: Set the scene
Now we’re ready to move to the introduction. As we said in our previous post as well as our perfect presentations post, the format of the introduction is presenting a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. We also talked last week about how the outline can look for the introduction (and you already have the last paragraph, so we took that one out):
- Paragraph 1: What is the problem and why should the reader worry/care about it?
- Paragraph 2 (and maybe 3): What’s been done to address/know more about the problem so far
- Paragraph 3/4: Knowledge or tools that can be used to further address the problem
With your outline already sorted, you should be able to fill in a few sentences about each idea. The first paragraph should give a short overview of the problem at hand, including definitions and explanations of key concepts in your research area. This is especially important for people outside your field—those who work in this area will likely skip over this part of your paper, but someone unfamiliar with the tools and concepts you’re looking at will need to get a big picture understanding of your work in a single paragraph. For example, if your work is looking at Gene X and its role in the immune system and how it impacts cancer drug effectiveness, you don’t need to give a broad overview of how the immune system works, but someone coming from the field of neurobiology should be able to understand the basics of what type of study system you’re using and why it’s of relevance for your work.
The second (and potentially also the third) paragraph will be more of a short literature review, which you can expand on more in the discussion as needed. Avoid dumping all of the existing ideas or possibly relevant literature in this section, since it will make it an unreadable series of facts. Start by simply asking ‘Who else is working on a similar topic to mine?’ and work out from there. You don’t need to cover everything slightly related, but for example of Gene X immune system-cancer drug cross-talk, you can summarize the current basis of knowledge for other genes that related to system-drug cross-talk and how your gene emerged as a potential candidate for further study. The length of this section will depend on you, your PI, and also the publisher, if they happen to have limits on the total word count or a word count per section. If it’s on a total word count basis, keep this section shorter and use your words in more important sections such as the discussion.
Step 4: Bring it all together
If the last paragraph is where you start writing for your introduction, the first paragraph of the discussion is where you start writing for this last section (confused already?). This leading paragraph of your discussion is what’s going to set up this crucial section of your paper and tie your new results and previous results all together. In this first paragraph, go back to your specific aims and hypotheses. Describe what you found out through the study in the context of your initial hypotheses, and give a step-by-step overview of what you just presented in the paper. Going back to my PLOS one paper, here’s how the discussion section started out:
'We found that masculinization of female G. holbrooki continues to occur in the Fenholloway River. Paper mill effluent exposure is associated with both anal fin elongation as well as with significantly increased bone segment formation at this site. Additionally, we found an increase in the mRNA levels of vtg, zp2, 17βhsd3, and shh in Fenholloway River G. holbrooki. Through comparison of hepatic gene expression patterns to data from laboratory exposures, we found that paper mill effluent exposure resulted in an increase of genes associated with metabolic pathways, with 62 genes similarly expressed by G. holbrooki exposed to androgens, indicating a similarity between impacts at the molecular level between paper mill and androgen exposure. We also found detectable levels of both AR and PR ligands in the transactivation assay in concentrated water samples collected from both the paper mill impacted and reference sites.'
This opening paragraph can set you up for the rest of the discussion very easily, as you’ll have essentially listed out a topic for each following paragraph in the discussion. In each paragraph, think about how the results you saw fit in with key experiments from the literature and try to connect the two. What proposed pathways or models exist to explain both your results and data already in the literature? What potential ideas could explain discrepancies between your findings and a similar study by another group? It’s in this section that you’ll need to put the most work, which is why it should be saved for the almost last bit of writing.
As with writing anything, though, the one thing you don’t need to do is get it perfect the first time. The discussion is generally the hardest section to write because it requires synthesizing all the results as well as developing new ideas and explanations for what you found. Trying to put this all into writing is not an easy task-but one that you should still give a go anyways. If you feel stuck, try to go one paragraph at a time and send that paragraph to a colleague or mentor to review. Get some feedback from them as to if you’re on the right track, if your scientific logic has any holes, or if there’s a different way you can structure your arguments. The best way to learn how to write is to try, and then try some more-so if anything, don’t be afraid to put words on paper and see how it goes!
Also, don’t be afraid of a discussion that goes too long, at least in the pre-submission stages. You can always cut back, and your paper co-authors will likely also have ideas of what should go where and what’s relevant, so feel free to send them a lot and let them cut back as need be. While you as the lead author will do the bulk of the work, don’t be afraid to ask a co-author for additional editorial guidance, especially if they have good paper writing experience.
Step 5: Tie up the loose ends
While you’ll probably have to come back to your paper after your initial few drafts after your co-authors take a look, there are other things you should make sure are good to go before you finally click ‘submit’.
Literature cited: Main hint here? Use a reference tool! If you have access to EndNote then there is a very easy-to-use plug-in; if not there are other free platforms (such as Mendeley) you can use which also have Microsoft Word plug-ins. Whether it’s a long or short paper, regardless of how many references you end up having, using a reference tool will take the tedium out of this section, and will also ensure that everything’s cited in the correct format.
Tables and figures: Each journal should have a guide for authors which will specify the types of files supported and any minimum compression sizes/methods for figures. Remember that these are the part of your paper that people will often look at first-so make sure they are clear, accurate, readable, of a high technical quality, and, of course, stylish.
Acknowledgements: Be sure to thank any lab mates, technicians, or colleagues who helped out with the project but who didn’t do enough work to make it to the author list. If you have co-author who works in a company or government institution, they will likely have to include wording to reflect that this paper doesn’t reflect the companies views (they will probably add it themselves but you can make a note to ensure that they included it). And don’t forget the funding agencies who sponsored your soon-to-be published study!
The key thing to remember about writing is that you won’t get it right the first time around. It takes practice and a lot of trial and error, which can leave you feeling like you’ve been stuck on a paper for ages. That being said, writing is a chance to enable ideas to grow and change over time as part of the creative process, which can bring depth to your arguments and your story. You won’t get a perfect paper the first time around, so envision your time spent writing as constructive practice towards future perfection (or at least publishable perfection!).